Scripture: Isaiah 64:1-4
This past Monday morning, at 9:20 am, an ICU nurse named Sandra Lindsay made history when she became the first person in the US to receive a Covid-19 vaccine after its FDA approval. Since then, over the course of this week, more pictures and videos of healthcare workers receiving vaccines have been popping up in my social media feed and in the news. I talked to a mentor on Wednesday whose husband is a physician’s assistant in a hospital outside of Harrisonburg, who had just gotten his first dose earlier that morning. “It’s real,” she said. “I keep telling people it’s real. If we have it here in Augusta County, VA, it’s real.”
Collectively, this week, it seems, the world – or at least our part of it – has breathed a sigh of relief. We’ve gotten that collective lump in our throat seeing these pictures and hearing this news. We still have a long way to go in our battle against Covid-19. Some less well-off countries undoubtedly have longer. And things will probably still get worse before they truly get better. But, for just a moment this week, it was as if there was a ray of hope breaking through a thoroughly apocalyptic year.
And it has been an apocalyptic year, in all senses of that word. Our lives have been turned upside down. There are things that will probably never be the same as they were Before, for better or for worse. And the crisis of epidemic has done a lot to reveal its truth about who we are as a society: from the social and political divisions highlighted through science we can’t agree on, to the racial disparity and economic fragility we ignore at our peril.
This week, though, we could dare to believe that maybe the world isn’t ending after all.
We have often, in the past nine months, called these “unprecedented times,” but people, of course, have lived through apocalyptic times before, some decidedly worse than these. (Worse, at least, for those of us who mostly have to stay inside and have Zoom meetings.) Once in a while I will still come across a picture of shelled-out buildings in a barren landscape in Syria or Yemen and try to imagine, or perhaps try not to imagine too hard, what it must be like to be someone in one of those places at this time.
Sometimes, likewise, I read the Bible and try to imagine, or perhaps try not to imagine too hard, what it must have been like to live in Jerusalem in 587 BCE when the city fell to the Babylonian Empire after being under siege for over a year.
It’s that history that the prophet Isaiah has in mind in today’s Scripture reading: O that you would tear open the heavens and come down! It’s part of a longer passage in which the prophet remembers God’s faithful acts in the past: how God brought the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and led them through the wilderness. Where is that God now? the prophet wants to know, as God’s people sit in exile and Jerusalem remains in ruins. O that you would tear open the heavens and come down. God, why don’t you show yourself? Because when it seems like the world is ending, that is literally the only hope we have left.
The prophet’s prayer contains a note of desperation that we don’t normally hear during Advent, because if all we are waiting for in Advent is the birth of the baby in a manger, we can expect with full confidence that it will come as scheduled. All we have to do is light the candles and count the days, open the little doors on our Advent calendars. But maybe at some point this year, or at another time in your life, you’ve felt it. That desperate plea has been yours. O that you would tear open the heavens; O that you would rend the heavens – I like that translation, rend. And maybe God did. Or maybe God hasn’t, yet. And so I think it’s appropriate to conclude an apocalyptic Advent with a prayer like this one, because when everything else has been exhausted, desperation is what we are left with. There’s nothing we can do ourselves that we haven’t tried, and we are forced to look outside ourselves and our own power to make anything better.
In her book Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ, the preacher Fleming Rutledge writes about how the second coming of Christ is discontinuous with what has come before. “It means,” she writes, “that the hope of redemption and the advent of the age to come no longer seeks evidence of the promise from present circumstances, but only in terms of the promised future of God” (p. 20-21). God’s coming kingdom is not a matter of our own human progress, if we are in fact making any at all. We talk often in church about building God’s kingdom here on earth. I know you hear that language because I use it all the time. There is something powerful and, to me, inspiring about accepting our mission to be part of this ultimate task. This apocalyptic Advent has made me reconsider that, though. Nothing I can do is going to bring God’s Kingdom in all its glory; all I can do is live in a way that makes me ready when it comes. This Isaiah also recognizes in his urgent prayer over the fallen temple: “But now, Lord, you are our father. We are the clay, and you are the potter” (64:8). All he and his people can do is cry into the heavens, and wait for God’s response.
We’ve learned something about waiting and praying in the past nine months. Scientists across the world, of course, have been hard at work to make a vaccine happen. For most of us, though, who aren’t part of that work, we’ve had to reckon with our own powerlessness. Yes, we have worn our masks, and yes, we’ve stayed home more, and yes, perhaps we’ve donated money or food or time to lighten the load of others, but in the end, most of us have had to wait for news that something new was coming. And it seems to me that this has been a very Advent-y season, this whole time, because one of the things we’ve had to grapple with is our inability to change this reality on our own.
Isaiah’s prayer is the prayer of someone who recognizes their own powerlessness. But it is not a hopeless powerlessness. In these past nine months, I think, we have been largely powerless, but we have not been hopeless. And that’s why we’ve worn our masks and made our donations and done our best to help flatten the curves – because we have hope that this will not be forever; because we have hope that something new is on the horizon. These things are our witness to our belief in better days to come.
Try to envision this divine entrance into the world the way the prophet does. Come down, Isaiah says, and the mountains will quake, and the nations will tremble, and it will be like fire sweeping through brushwood. It will be like water coming to a boil.
It’s quite a way to picture God coming into our world, right? This kind of divine arrival that is pictured and longed and called for is not exactly Santa Claus coming to town. It’s not even Jesus, the baby in the manger, who couldn’t manage to get a reservation elsewhere. Here, apocalypse calls for apocalypse: when it seems like the world is ending, the only thing left is for God to tear open the heavens and toss the mountains aside and make it right.
And Isaiah may not know it then, but the divine response will come. Jerusalem will not remain in ruins forever. Because the God who hears our desperate cries is a God who is desperate to come to us, knocking mountains out of their way and leaving fire in their wake.
For a moment this week, it was as if a ray of hope broke through this truly apocalyptic year, and we dared to believe that maybe the world wasn’t ending, after all.
But still we wait: for justice to be done. For right to vindicated. For the mighty to fall and the lowly to be exalted, the hungry to be fed and the full to be sent away. Still we wait: for the power of death to be vanquished; for every tear to be wiped away, for needless suffering to cease. Still we wait: for our own hearts to be remade in the image of God’s.
We wait, and are powerless in our waiting, but the one we wait on is the one with power and authority over all creation. And as our desperate cries reach heaven, somewhere in the distance, the mountains begin to quake.